Red Hen Publications — Commentary Collection: On Education & the internet
The Potterverse Essays

On Books, Reading, & Fandom

A comment made by one of the other members of my APA (Amateur Press Association) back in early-’97 regarding some of the ballyhoo over the Internet as the savior of modern education started me on a roll. I rolled through a number of different takes on the subject and well before I was through I realized that I had rolled right into the ’gator tank (or something equally hard to get a solid footing in) and that I was going to have to put it all aside until I had more time to deal with it. The original version of this finally got sent through the APA in September of that year.

My proposal (a nice big slice of Blue Sky pie, mostly) never happened, although I still think it might have had possibilities, if it had been feasible — which it probably wasn’t. In the main, the whole thing was a very “3rd-Turning” piece of commentary. But much of what I had to say then, I would still say now. Possibly with more emphasis.

What set the whole discussion off was some comment to do with the push for getting the schools “wired” — which rather a lot of the Powers That Be were not all that enthusiastic about. The basic internet may have been around for decades, but no one really knew about it but govenment/military wonks and research centers. And no one but they could really access it, either. The “Worldwide Web” was a user interface overlay for it that was designed to be accessible by the public, and it was a very recent development. Personal computers were still regarded by a lot of people as something of a fad, who didn’t really expect them to last.

Plus, getting computers into the schools was going to be expensive, and would require training the teachers to use them as well as the students. A drgree of reluctance was only to be expected. And a lot of people were unconvinced that it was relevant.

At that point hardly anybody factored in the issue of obsolescence — which would have been even more of a disincentive, if they had antcipated it. It’s just as well they didn’t.

Looking back with the 20/20 hindsight available some 25 years later, it’s not hard to understand the why. So long as computers were isolated individual appliances in private homes, or workplaces, and used primarily for word processing, spreadsheets, or for playing games it was easy to regard a computer in a home as primarily a toy, and one in an office as just a souped-up typewriter. Most Junior and Senior High schools already had typeing classes.

Once computers could speak to each other, however, it was a whole other ball game. The worldwide web was a major game-changer.

My own first response to the original comment was a simple one, consisting mainly of a bit of personal recollection, and on the shallow side. But it led me to look at the underlying question which I suspect we need to ask ourselves periodically.

Just what is education for anyway?

I don’t mean all the lip service to contemporary middle-class values and all its attendant high-sounding claptrap which one usually gets as an answer to that question. Just; what is the purpose of education, today, and what is the internet supposed to be saving education for?

Phrase it however you want to, it’s clear that some of the main focus of education changes over time. And, yet, in another sense, education, or at least public education, doesn’t change at all.

• • • •

As long as education is subsidized by the government, the government is going to set the standards which all educational facilities are going to need to meet in order to be certified, and their students validated as having been “educated” in order to qualify for anything which requires education. Consequently, whether public or private, education is going to serve the government’s purposes — in addition to anything else. And there ain’t never been a government in the history of the world whose purposes would have been best served by a citizenry composed of independent thinkers. So, right off the top you can just forget the theory that the purpose of education is to produce any skills related to the creation of independent thought. Independent thought has always been a byproduct. Sometimes an unanticipated and unwanted one. Why else do you suppose such blatant anti-intellectualism is both so pervasive, so tacitly approved, and solidly endorsed by every segment of the entertainment media?

Government — neither ours nor anybody else’s — does not want independent thinkers. Governments want patriots. And if that means ignoring history as it actually took place, and teaching a careful selection of myths and hero tales instead, and calling that history, then so be it. It isn’t really in a government’s interests that more than a very small fraction of the populace actually be aware of the facts behind history — warts and all, anyway.

An enlightened government might try to maintain as high a degree of contentment for its populace as a whole as can be managed, since a contented populace tends to let the people in charge carry on with as little interference as possible, lest somebody upset its comfortable apple cart. But most of the governments out there aren’t particularly enlightened, and ours is no exception. Control is always more important to most governments, in the main, than a contented populace. Although they all admit that contentment would be nice. It has a side effect of making sure that the general population will voluntarily do much of the enforcing of the status quo in the government’s stead [for free] by using the bludgeon of public disapproval on anyone who steps out of line.

There are at least couple of obvious ways to implement a governmentally approved social trend. The contented populace model, or “carrot” method is to enable a reasonably high standard of living for everyone, down into the solid working classes. It is expensive, and requires high taxes, so you have to really turn up the patriotism dial and continually be congratulating people on how much luckier they are to be a citizen of their country rather than any other country, as well as adopting a moderate degree of isolationism, blurring any conflicting messages that might come in from outside. Within this scenario, it helps to have a recognized outside danger to unite the population against. This worked very well indeed back in the 1950s. If the current cycle goes according to Strauss & Howe and works out satisfactorily, we may see another attempt at it starting up once the current pandemic winds down.

Admittedly, with a functioning internet accessible to anyone with access to a computer or smartphone and a paid-up provider account it would be difficult to maintain the level of national isolation that was standard back in the ’50s. But considering the willingness of everyone, everywhere to grouse about their government, I suspect it would probably all even out.

The second, or “stick” method is commoner, and a bit more risky, but cheaper. Much cheaper. It depends less on contentment (or education) than it does on fear. This method enables an extremely high, standard of living for the wealthy, pays a tremendous amount of lip-service, but not very much else, to the concerns of the middle classes, in order to engage their continued support, and pretty well ignores everyone else. You get a lot of unrest at the lower socioeconomic levels in this model, so you encourage the local police forces to escalate into paramilitary troops geared to keeping the poor under tight control. Which generates further conflict, which generates the very fear that you then use to keep everyone in line.

To keep everything spinning satisfactorily, you make every effort to publicise every resulting “threat to society”/barbarians-at-the-gate image to the hilt, making the above state of all-but-declared war at least as visible on a daily basis as the fantasy images of luxury and ease (which are another necessary component of this model) — and play on the resulting middle-class paranoia until your target audience is willing to let you do anything you please in the name of keeping them safe. In the absence of a major outside enemy, the poor are painted as ravening perverts, foreign infiltrators and subhuman savages who must be kept down in the service of national defense.

This may actually play as long as a sizable percentage of the poor really are fairly recent immigrants from places where conditions really are worse than “here.” How long this state can be maintained when the poor are overwhelmingly a permanent underclass of native born citizens, whose standard of living is slipping down into 3rd-world levels I would hesitate to say. It probably helps to have the periodic “little foreign war” to distract public attention to. Which will buy you the time needed to acquire an outside enemy. Sometimes a legitimate one.

Under this scenario, the poor are not usually educated to such a degree, or in such a style which would enable them to effectively better themselves in the society of the actual day, but, rather, in a manner which would have been regarded as mostly sufficient a generation or two earlier. The resulting backwardness of the lower socioeconomic levels also serves the purposes of the enforcers, since much of their position as the would-be “rescuers/protectors of society” depends upon there always being a highly visible, and visibly inferior, underclass to demonize. (Note; After the original publication of this article, the very next issue of the L.A. Weekly ran a cover article comparing the education given in the AP classes in two L.A. public schools in respectively, the Valley and South L.A. I won’t say that they altogether agreed with me, but neither did the journalist voice any clear contradiction.)

• • • •

But that’s more than enough about control theories. There is a good deal more to the education industry than the patriot factory. Even if the patriot factory does keep trying to be the one calling the shots.

From the point of view of the Education “industry” any government’s purpose has always been best served by the steady production of a skilled workforce.

This is the focus of education that changes over time, because the type of work performed by a national workforce will change over time. And the sort of skills this workforce needs will also change according to current demand.

When this country was founded, most of the Nation’s workforce were either agricultural workers or fairly independent artisans. The artisans were taught their specific trades in apprentice programs. The agricultural workers learned their trade on the family farm.

Consequently, the purpose of formal education in those days was to teach a truly rudimentary level of the skills of reading, writing and computational arithmetic, and to produce patriots who would support the government without a lot of question.

This model of education served quite well for several generations. There were enough wealthy candidates for “higher education” to retain most of society’s control in the accustomed hands, and the rudimentary educational establishments were sufficiently able to spot a sufficient number of gifted children of humble backgrounds — suitable for encouragement and support into a higher educational and social class (often ending up as future school teachers) — to give the general population something to hope for, and to ensure that these particular “new men” would be suitably grateful for the support and encouragement received to be trusted to toe the party line once they got invited to the party. Please do not believe that I am claiming that this degree of calculation was consciously applied. It probably was not. But this was basically how the social machinery operated.

As the bulk of the country’s work became steadily more industrial, education was forced to adapt. An industrial worker is far more likely to live in a town or city than in an isolated rural farming community, and will be exposed to more outside influences than an agricultural society is likely to produce. And, while an industrial worker performs a smaller range of tasks on the job than a farm worker, the nature of his tasks are also far more subject to change abruptly. Consequently, in addition to the patriot factory, a more sophisticated level of data transfer was necessary in order to prepare a workforce that would be trainable to industrial work, and which would be both adaptable on the job, and better equipped to function smoothly within the more distracting social environment of a town. Such a workforce ought also to be able recognize and categorize the extraneous social and cultural information to which it is exposed and to place this information into a recognizable context, so as not to allow this extraneous data to distract it from its duties.

In an industrial society, with its denser population centers, there is also going to be a higher demand for professional workers than in a rural society. Since an industrial society also requires management workers in addition to production workers, general education had to expand enough to provide the rudimentary elements of what was traditionally regarded as higher education, in order to better serve the selection process of determining which children might be best encouraged to follow engineering, managerial or even professional tracks.

In a denser population, there is also eventually going to be a higher demand for the traditional, social parasites employed in the glamour “professions” of art, music and the rest of the tribe of (legitimate) entertainment workers, as well as the even greater number of workers who operate in that particular field’s support structure, behind the scenes.

Training in artistic fields had never been a part of the standard, government-authorized curriculum, but it was usually available as an option in the larger population centers. Consequently, it was during this period that the patriot factory began to incorporate elements of social and cultural history (although not actual training) into the line-up of hero tales in order to give students some contextual frame of reference for the cultural landmarks traditionally used to navigate in “polite society.” Such additions also served as a personal background within industrial contexts, and enabled the schools to avoid the appearance of turning out (cultural) ignoramuses. Public high schools were established during this period, and to have graduated from one became a viable qualification for admittance into entry-level management or engineering positions.

For the average factory worker, however, it was still assumed that he would leave a basic primary/intermedialte-level school able to carry all the information that he was ever expected to need in his head. And he might very well never set foot inside a High School which, although they were government-supported to some degree, usually required that the students should purchase their own textbooks and materials. Many children from lower income families were unable to attend, or to complete a High School program solely due to such financial constraints. For the working classes in the late 19th century this was typical.

Children were, however, required to attend school up to an age where they were considered to be capable of gainful employment. The age at which one one could legally leave school varied, and gradually rose. In the early 20th century the legal age to leave school was still 14 or 15. I believe by the end of the century, it was 16.

By the end of the 19th century, the social impulse to mouth platitudes about “art for art’s sake” had fully saturated the awareness of the middle classes, and was steadily penetrating the more comfortably off working class as well. One side effect of this trend was that there was now also a corresponding trend towards the comparatively recent concept of industrial design as a justification of itself as well. The machine had been with us long enough to begin generating its own aesthetic, and the material advantages of a well-designed machine over a poorly designed one were apparent to all who had to deal with them. Industrial design was beginning to be a standard component of engineering training programs.

Since the middle classes continued to grow, the decorative/applied arts (as well as the performing arts) also gradually became an established, reasonably respectable professional field which employed more than a few of the children of the middle-class. Since these children of the middle classes — who might very well be expected to enter into such professions, particularly since, by middle-class standards, these were rather high status professions — were still by and large attending the public schools, over the early 20th century the public school curriculum gradually began to incorporate rudimentary instruction in art and music from the elementary grades on up.

By the time I hit school in the early 1950s, a child’s future employment was beginning to be understood to be just as likely to be in an office as in a factory, and the educational shift reflecting that realization showed up in its determination to produce “well-rounded individuals” with an increased emphasis on social cooperation, which was reflected in our “citizenship” grades — although this had nothing whatsoever to do with the traditional operation of the patriot factory. (On an assembly line you aren’t supposed to interact with your neighbor, you are a biocog, interaction with other biocogs distracts you from your work.)

Not knowing, and unable to predict exactly what information would be required by our future employers, the schools attempted to teach us a smattering of everything, and all of it was presented as being amazingly dull, disjointed and irrelevant. Given the lack of engagement or recognizable context that I experienced while serving my term in the public school data dump I cannot really feel astonished to learn that the SAT scores of my generation declined for 17 years straight.

But the underlying intention of the schools was still to stuff our heads with everything that our instructors believed we were likely to ever need and turn us loose to find our own level. Maybe it worked for some of us, but I’m of the opinion that all school taught most of us was how to succeed at attending school.

At which we were given a great deal of additional incentive to apply ourselves, for the post-WWII baby boom had produced an over-supply of prospective workers. For whom no additional jobs were being created, and with manufactuing already staring its migration to foreign factories, the usual recorse to keeping us out of the labor market was to raise education requirements for even the most entry-level positions.

Permit me to say that there is no authenic need to require an Undergraduate degree in order to qualify one for employment as a Junior Administrative assistant in an office. Particularly not when a generation earlier a High School diploma would have been considered ample qualification.

But, however bogus the requirement, it had become the requirement.

• • • •

So, what was that question again? Oh, that’s right. What is the purpose of education today? What kind of work are we preparing this new workforce for? Are they expected to be agricultural workers, factory workers, office workers, communications workers, service workers, what? What skills are they going to need? How much, and what kind of information are they going to need to carry around in their heads? And what does the internet have to do with it anyway?

Actually, back when this article was first written, it was beginning to look like the internet might have quite a lot to do with it. While, for the immediate moment, the children of the poor could probably safely be relegated to a future of flipping burgers and juggling other people’s dry cleaning, the highest percentage of the children of the middle classes were expected to end up in offices. And, more and more, these were expected to be offices that were “wired.”

Which brings us to a related side issue. No few of the children of the working class, and even of the working poor will also probably find their way into offices, eventually, and a fair number of these offices will also be wired, at least after a fashion. It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice by the end of the 20th century that the highest level of employment that many, if not most of the children of the working poor could reasonably expect had become to enter the ranks of Civil Service.

Now, mine may just possibly be a specifically Los Angeles, or SoCal viewpoint, but I’m inclined to doubt it. From my vantage point, Civil Service today employs a lot of (sometimes very bright) people whose parents never made it off the factory assembly line. (Mine certainly didn’t.) It even employs a lot of people whose parents were welfare, or social security recipients. It employs a lot of minorities (and a lot of women), and it employs them in highly visible positions.

And, many of us, frankly, weren’t particularly well educated, even if we did get through college, and if you are ever in a position where you have to tangle with us over something, this shows. And Civil Service’s available technology and SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) tends to lag behind the private sector’s norm by anything up to 10-15 years, so the poor’s traditionally slightly backward educational level tends to help make us feel right at home (a home, unfortunately, which does not necessarily equate to a source of great satisfaction, but there is a roof over our heads).

After all, we were all the product of the governmentally-subsidized public school system weren’t we? (It was a rare rank-and-file Civil Servant who was sent to private school as a child, although quite a few may have attended parochial schools.) We are its end product, and no one else seemed to much want us. To the point of blatantly arificially raising the bar.

After all, why the hell else do you think there has been such a steadily growing attack on “big government” from a lot of angry, white, male, middle-aged, middle-class and upper middle-class blowhards over the past few decades? (Decades, which incidentally, almost exactly correspond with the era of Affirmative Action.) Our jobs aren’t the ones that the blowhards want for their kids. Ergo, “society” doesn’t really need us. We can be dispensed with. And the sooner the better. (Why, how dare those upstart poor people expect to carve themselves a niche of respectable employment where they can periodically lord it over their betters!)

Although, somehow, I don’t really see any corresponding clarion cries demanding fewer elected officials, do you? Those jobs are still perfectly acceptable goals for their kids, thank you very much.

• • • •

The future wired offices of the middle class and above, however, are envisioned as being set up to communicate at long distance with other entities, or corporate divisions which may be housed in another state, or country, halfway around the world. It is expected that they will handle information that will change rapidly and that these workers must be able to keep it current. This is the informational worker elite, and whether they will really become the backbone of the American presence in the global market and economy or not is uncertain, but a lot of people seemed to be betting the farm on it.

Indeed, in more recent observation, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown us a substantial curve in which there is now a strong suggestion that the office of the future may well be in the workers’ own places of residence. When the requisite equipment is present, telecommuting is a viable model for employment. A model in which the internet is an essential component.

Old-School Management doesn’t like that at all. I’m old enough to remember when telecommuting was absolutely forbidden, even when the employers refused to provide their employees with the computers needed to get the work done (the transition from working in analog to working digitally was a very bumpy ride indeed, particularly in Civil Service, which had some very old-school mamagers). The mindset was that if employees were being paid for their time, they needed to be herded into a location where management could keep them under surveilance to ensure that they didn’t goof off and waste the time they were being paid for. Telecommuting required enough of a shift in the paradigm to prioritize the actual work accomplished over the amount of time spent under management’s direct scrutiny. Employers needed to learn to trust their employees to actually do the work that needed doing. And by the time that paradigm was being proposed, Covid pretty much forced the issue in the interests of public safety.

But, in any case, there is no way that an information worker can carry all the data that he needs in his head.

And there is no way that the public school system can teach a student the skills that he needs without being able to provide the technology. Nor can the technology a student needs to learn how to handle necessarily be contained in an individual school. It is also becoming more apparent (at least to me) that in order to succeed, education will need to concentrate upon teaching certain skills in earlier grades, even if at the expense of imparting some of the traditional data.

After all, even if the artificial requirement of an undergraduate degree is retained as a necessary qualification for employment one still only has some 12–18 optimal years in which to acomplish the necessary training. If one has the skills, one can always go and find the data. And it ought to no longer be required that the worker carry that data in his head.

Is it going to matter that much to a child’s future if he does not learn that; “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” until he is 9 or 10 rather than to do so at 6 or 7? It may very well matter if he cannot keyboard effectively by 9 or 10. It will certainly matter if, by the time he is 9 or 10, he does not have some idea of where information is kept and how to go find it. And while I agree that he can certainly start to learn the principles of research at that age, it may have a far more beneficial effect upon his future academic and professional success if he already has that skill rather than a rudimentary knowledge of the current principal (legal) exports of Columbia.

What is more, these skills are going to be a lot more transferable and useful to him as information technology itself changes — as it will, and rapidly — and the information he handles is updated and its relevance or accuracy debated. Even if it does feel rather like a devolvement into a newer form of the old technical, or “vocational” schools which were focused on something other than academic performance.

For that matter, the kid may be more likely to remember and to value the information that “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” if he has to go hunt it down and kill it himself, instead of getting it handed to him dried and salted down and served up to him in a textbook.

• • • •

The one thing that public education is not going to be excused from, however, is the continued operation of the patriot factory. That is not under negotiation, and it will continue. This is a constant. How the patriot factory is going to manage to get its traditional message across when its operators are required to keep in mind that the kids who are undergoing the program are likely to eventually be having to spend much of their professional lives dealing with foreigners and foreign companies *without* giving offence left, right, and forward, I do not know. But the patriot factory will certainly continue.

There are other constants as well:

Students still must be taught the basics of reading and reading comprehension, written communication, and rudimentary computational arithmetic.

Students will still need to learn to express themselves in a grammatically correct manner, when required.

Students will still need to be taught the principles of fractions and percentages, as well as be given an introduction to the general concept of the purposes of the various branches of higher mathematics, and to operate, and correctly interpret and deploy the findings of these functions as they are produced by electronic calculators. (The hands-on branches of higher mathematics will no doubt still be taught, and probably as badly as ever. But possibly not to as many people.)

In addition to this, students will still need to be taught basic principles of public and private health, hygiene, and safety, as well as something of the workings of the common social contract into which we are all enrolled, i.e., how modern society works. This is probably an appropriate point at which to connect to some of the patriot factory’s functions.

At this point, if history is taught, (and it will be taught. It is an essential component of the patriot factory) it is essential to convey the concept that at different points in history the average person did not necessarily think, feel or interpret information as he does now now.

Students will also certainly need to learn how to produce and interpret graphical information (charts, graphs, maps).

They will need to be introduced to the basic tenets of scientific processes and learn something of the operation of the physical world around them. Perhaps something of the solar system beyond that as well.

They need to learn something of the basic principles of engineering. They need to develop some concept of the mechanically possible — and impossible.

They need to learn how to operate machinery in a controlled environment and to treat it with respect. Ideally, a “life skills” course (including drivers’ Ed at the High School level) would instruct students of both sexes in the basics of operating household appliances safely as well as something of being able to take care of themselves, organize and manage tasks and to do rudimentary cooking and cleaning. Certainly by the time they reach middle school.

An introduction to what used to be called shop skills (woodworking, metalworking, auto maintenance) should continue to be made available to all students regardless of gender (unlike in my day). I am not convinced that these courses should continue to be required, as they were in my day (in Middle School, and only for boys). Future employment in these areas can no longer be taken for granted, but there are and will still be jobs in these fields. And hobbies are a thing. Sometimes a useful and satisfying thing.

Students need to learn to use a keyboard, and they need to learn it early. They need to understand something of what a computer can and cannot do. And probably something of how computers work and to recognize what can go wrong, as well as how to get themselves out of minor difficulties, and how to run basic maintenance.

They also need to learn to recognize when they have a real problem. As early as possible. And, some kids will undoubtedly want to be taught how to physically repair and maintain computers. And this should be permitted, any machinery society depends on will always need qualified repairmen. And plumbers.

Since nothing is more deadly to one’s proclaimed social status or credibility than an obvious ignorance of cultural history, so long as lip service is paid to the concept of “improving” oneself though education, students will need some introduction to the background and context of the cultural icons and references which surround them. They need to learn something of how cultural expressions work and what responses they are invoking. They need to begin to understand the different manner in which these examples were produced and what “tools” were used to produce them. They need to learn enough of how to handle these tools to be able to evaluate something of the expertise of those who handle them professionally.

They should also probably learn something of the principles of the production of propaganda and how to recognize and interpret it. And to manipulate it, and to recognize when they are being manipulated. They need to develop some basic skills of criticism, even if they don’t ever quite aspire to independent thought.

And — above all — in addition to the rest of these basics they will need to be taught to use the tools and methodology of research. They need to know where information is likely to be stored, and how to go there and get it. They need to learn how to filter and evaluate what they find and to determine what is relevant and what is not, They need to know how to organize and present what they can gather.

And this is where the internet comes in. And this is where the principle of education takes a great leap from where it was when I was in school.

• • • •

When I was a kid, we didn’t even encounter the concept of research much before Middle School/Junior High. I think my entire experience of the subject of research up to that point could be summed up with the usual smug directive to look things up in the dictionary whenever I forgot myself and was fool enough to actually ask a teacher what some word meant. Or how to spell it.

Which, by the way, was an excellent way of ensuring that I would never do that on any consideration. I despised dictionaries. I never looked things up in a dictionary. In the first place, I wouldn’t have been able to find it because I couldn’t spell it. In the second place, if I was asking about a word that I had run across in a book — where the spelling was available — I still wouldn’t look it up because the story was more important than the word, and that by the time I was finished with the story, I knew damn well that I would either have already figured the meaning out from the context, or I would have forgotten about it, and it would no longer matter. By the time I finished the story I wouldn’t bloody care what the word meant, and I knew it. In the third place, I wasn’t about to look it up now, because the teacher had got my back up by snotting me off and telling me to do so. I mean, really! I wasn’t asking the question because I desperately cared about the answer. I was asking the question because the teacher presumably knew the answer and the teacher was there. From where I was standing, “Look it up in the dictionary” was a smartass non-answer which should be treated with all the contempt it deserved. I didn’t ask so many questions of my teachers that I appreciated having the few that I did ask blown off.

Which I still believe, btw. If a child that you are being paid to instruct asks you a question, and you know the answer, you tell him the answer. Or at least you give him a partial answer and encourage him to investigate further. You don’t play snotty “I know, but I’m not going to tell you.” head games at him. That’s not why he is asking you, and it’s not what you are being paid for. Or the horse you rode in on.

Since I do not possess enough imagination to be able to generate much in the way of authentic curiosity, the end result of this kind of “teaching” is that I have very poor research skills, offset only by the possession of a fairly capacious memory. And by the time I reached the upper grades, and “research projects” had become a part of the curriculum it was far too late for the process to become ingrained.

Which brings us to some of the flies in this particular chunk of amber.

In my day, people didn’t turn children loose in a library with “research projects” much before they were 11 or 12 for what were probably other reasons than the conviction that they wouldn’t know how to use a library. Libraries, especially school libraries, are not perfectly dependable sources if you demand that the young only be exposed to information that has been vetted to their age, nationality and the religious/philosophical bent of their parents social groups. The internet is this problem elevated to about the 6th or 7th power.

Not least because the information stored there has never been clearly sorted according to “appropriateness” as to age, gender or intention, but also because there is no way to ensure that there be either a modicum of civility in its presentation, veracity as to its content, or even any assurance that it has not been misfiled altogether. There is no Dewey decimal system on the internet, certainly not one that is universally adopted. Nor is there likely to be one in any foreseeable future. The Net is an international entity. Search engines exist, certainly, but there is only so much a search engine can do when it is up to the poster to state what a given posting is. Not everybody posting on the Net is clear on that concept. And unaccompanied minors are not what it was set up for.

Side note. All the clamor about making things “safe for children” has been smelling fishier to me by the year. What it seems to be boiling down to is that what people are demanding is to be able to turn their kids loose in any of a number of hermetically sealed environments, and then go away and leave them there until they have time to deal with them. Preferably once they have grown into adults.

Excuse me, but wasn’t this traditionally what the nannies, and governesses and tutors of the rich were for? They were hired to raise and accompany children while their parents went off and did “real” things, like rule the world. If you are rich enough to believe that you are entitled to have your children raised in your absence, then pay someone to do it. Contribute to full employment. Don’t tell me that all of society has to drop everything and babysit your kids for free, out of the goodness of our hearts, if you don’t even have time for them yourself. Bully the employers of the middle classes to provide services to make it workable. Form an alliance with your neighbors and keep an eye on each other’s kids. Or don’t your neighbors have any time for their kids either?

just go and reread ‘Lord of the Flies’, Now, there was a bunch of nice middle class kids, choir boys in fact, turned loose in a hermetically sealed environment. What did it produce? It produced savages. It’s always going to be at risk of producing savages (never mind that the kids that the incident the story was based from did not devolve into savagery, nor were they choir boys brought up with a sense of middle-class entitlement). If you want your kids to be “safe”, provide them with adult supervision. After all, once you do find that fabled place that is “safe for kids” to dump yours in, other people will too. And then how do you expect to protect them from the other kids? In such an environment, the other kids are always going to be the most likely hazard they are going to encounter. And the other kids are not harmless.

Frankly, I tend to suspect anyone who tries to initiate a flap about not wanting children to have access to information probably doesn’t like the idea of anyone having access to that information. Or, for that matter, any information.

Another big hairy buzzing fly is that teaching a child to use the internet is, like the teaching of most useful skills, a more intensive process than giving them a list of facts to memorize, and quizzing them to see if they’ve done it. You can no more teach a roomful of 8-year-olds to use the internet by lecturing them for 15 minutes and letting them each take 5-minute turns at the classroom computer than you can teach a roomful of 16-year-olds Drivers’ Ed by lecturing them for an hour and turning them loose on the freeway (or even just in the parking lot). Kids are going to need intensive coaching in very small groups of 2–3 at the most. And while schools are increasingly willing to buy their students computers, I seriously doubt that they are prepared to stump up for a sufficiency of computer coaches.

Besides, “taming” the net to make it safe for children defeats the purpose. The net was not designed for children.

It was designed for Generals and Senators (and University wonks). And you know what they are all interested in. And they kept it all to themselves until a bunch of other people came along and built a “worldwide web” on top of it. It’s never going to be “safe for childern”.

So, let’s all sit down and enjoy a slice of Blue Sky pie, and try to come up with some ideas of what a reasonable extrapolation of such an hermetically sealed environment might look like. The pie’s a bit stale, since it has been sitting around on the shelf for something like 25 years, but whatever.

Perhaps some other kind of Net could be made “safe for children”. One designed for such purposes from the get-go.

Why the hell not? There might even be money in it. (Note of sarcasm, here.) Well, it never happened, and never was going to happen, and I don’t even know whether it would have ever been feasible, but as of 1997 it didn’t look altogether impossible.

Consider:

The current free-for-all, any-number-can-play confederacy of Internet sites, or even just Web sites, may not be sustainable at the current rate of growth. What the Internet started out as is not what it has become, and certainly not what it’s going to continue to develop into. Parts of it are getting root-bound and could do with dividing and repotting. When the inevitable cry for a general overhaul gets started up — which should be pretty soon — or even well before that point, I propose that some serious thought be given to how the K-12 community is supposed to fit in. Or if it even needs to.

Consider also; learning how to find and retrieve data is only the first part of the educational exercise. One needs also to learn how to sort the data one finds, decide what data is relevant to the inquiry, and how to make a selection of, and to organize the data one chooses to use. One also needs to learn how to manipulate the data one finds, if only to avoid falling into the “I found it on the Net, it must be true” pitfall. This cannot be done effectively when the job is just too big, or there is too much distraction in the way. Nor is it only the children of the poor who may be overwhelmed and intimidated by the prospect. Either the neo must be closely supervised, or the environment must be controlled. At the present point, all kinds of people are proposing various methods of control. I'm not sure that this really means what the people proposing it seem to think it means.

Consider; maybe children do not really need access to the Internet. That maybe what they need is access to a large-scale simulation of the Internet which operates according to the same model. Including variations on the sort of built-in nonsense and muddle which serves as an introduction to the sort of obstacle course which actually surfing the net entails.

I would like to suggest that some thought be given towards establishing something like a SchoolNet which would link a nation’s public (and private?) educational facilities of the K-12 level. This might include some universities as well. Perhaps on a voluntary, or free subscription basis. This network could also link to major public informational sources, such as libraries and news networks.

There might also be some debate as to whether there should also be gateways to commercial online services, or those private informational or recreational sites which would have to be approved and which could chose to subscribe. Families engaged in home schooling their children ought also to be able to establish a presence there. By annual subscription probably.

The main difference is that from SchoolNet, one would not have access to links out onto the real Internet apart from the actual sites which subscribe to it, even though most, if not all of these public or commercial sites may also be accessible from the Internet itself. The SchoolNet, on the other hand, should no more be accessible from outside its own system, than that all schools should have open campuses, regardless of where they are located.

This would indeed require that subscribers conform to some standard of security, or firewall, or whatever is necessary. Which would no doubt eliminate many smaller, otherwise useful or innocuous sites. This is unfortunate, but full access, or even a site’s harmlessness is not the point here.

The point is lessening the invitation for future lawsuits.

Actually, the real problem isn’t so much that the student will encounter shocking or inappropriate information — despite the smokescreen concerning this possibility which everyone is determined to send up. The real problem is that allowing hordes of kids out onto the net without supervision will result in a monumental waste of time and resources for which the schools will be expected to pick up the tab. No one talks about this, but it is a much bigger problem than the existence of some crackpots out there spouting nut-case religions, unpopular politics, or pedaling pornography.

SchoolNet subscribers might also be required to conform to a “no advertising” policy, but given the way schools are perpetually strapped for cash it isn’t likely. No one seems to have fully opened the can of worms over the degree of responsibility a wired school is to be expected to bear over what advertising a student may encounter from a school computer.

In the schools themselves, the SchoolNet access could be configured by grade level in the classrooms as to the degree of participation allowed from each site and with some careful planning in the set up and sophistication in the search engines, some control over the level of difficulties encountered by the user could be maintained, depending upon what computer you are logging in from. The school library would have full access for the top grade level of the school, and at least one station in either the library or a special computer lab would have full access to the whole SchoolNet.

Since the students would ideally be taught how to build and maintain their own personal pages, there will be ample experience in distraction and muddle built into the system. And since these sites are student work displayed on what is essentially school property, the usual restrictions and controls would apply.

By High School, there should be at least a few stations at each school with true Internet access.

There are probably holes in this synopsis that you can drive a Mack truck through, but at least some of it ought to be relevant to the situation. All the ballyhoo about wiring the schools strikes me as something that people have glommed onto as a classic “magical solution,” and I don’t think the people out there yammering about it realize what they are letting themselves in for.

(Particularly the endless lawsuits.)